Research shows that around 20% of adults have experienced some type of mental illness in their lifetime. One of the most common mental illnesses is depression, which is defined as “extended periods of feeling extremely low that disrupt a person’s ability to enjoy life.” As of 2019, more than 6.5% of people have been diagnosed with depression in the United States.
Anxiety is an even more common mental illness, defined as “chronic, exaggerated worrying about everyday events and activities, often accompanied with physical symptoms.” Over 20% of Americans were dealing with anxiety as a mental illness in 2019. And while the data for post-pandemic mental health is still being gathered, we can assume percentages will only continue to increase.
At first blush, business and mental health may seem like they have little to do with each other, but when you take a closer look, you’ll see why your company isn’t immune to this conversation. If you take your business as a microcosm of society at large, then you should assume that around 6.5% of your employees have diagnosed depression, and at least 20% are dealing with anxiety of some kind. And whether your company consists of 20 employees or 1,000, the implications of those percentages are significant as you apply them to the real people doing the real work.
Mental health isn’t an isolated issue and unsurprisingly is closely tied to physical health problems such as diabetes and heart disease, sleep issues, and addiction or substance abuse disorders. Those physical problems inevitably decrease employee output as well as increase sick days. What does this mean, practically? The Lancet Journal estimates that depression and anxiety disorders disrupt over $1 trillion of productive output each year. That’s a huge loss of revenue for you and the economy in general.
So, knowing the reality of mental health, what can business leaders do?
Top 5 Ways Employers Can Improve the Mental Health and Wellness of Employees
1. Establish Core Values – The coronavirus pandemic has caused a majority of workers to reassess their lives, their livelihoods and their futures. Now more than ever, it’s important for people to find meaningfulness in their work. They want to experience a sense of purpose when they go to work every day, and the first step to providing a sense of purpose to employees is by establishing a set of Core Values. It is absolutely necessary in today’s labor market to define, follow and vocalize your organization’s values. If this concept is completely foreign to you, a good place to start is by creating a mission statement. Your mission statement should not only apply to your business, but it should also take into consideration your employees, your community and even the world at large.
2. Set a Good Example – It doesn’t matter how lofty or well-meaning your company’s core values are, if leadership is not leading by example, it will negatively impact employee morale. Leadership needs to “walk the talk.” For example, say you’re trying to encourage a healthy work/life balance in your corporate culture. To do so, you’ve implemented a policy that workers no longer need to answer their phones or emails on weekends. If your managers are still sending messages to your team members on Saturdays and Sundays, then the policy means nothing. And even worse, a policy like this can cause more dissatisfaction and distrust among your employees than if the policy was never implemented in the first place. A workplace fails to thrive when leadership fails to lead by example.
3. Understand Your Employees’ Experiences – At the moment, we are seeing a C-Suite disconnect of epic proportions in the workplace. Workers are quitting their jobs in record numbers because they feel ignored, underappreciated, overworked, underpaid, unhappy and just generally stressed out. Executives? Not so much. A recent Future Forum Pulse survey showed that overall job satisfaction for executives is 62% higher than non-executives. It would appear that most work cultures are set up to ensure the success of the top brass while paying little attention to the success of the average employee.
To bridge this gap, business leaders must listen to what their employees are saying. This can be hard for employers and employees alike. It’s hard for an employee to be honest about the things they don’t like about their job. They can be scared of retaliation and retribution. It’s also hard for leaders to hear what they might be doing wrong. In most cases, defensiveness and dismissiveness are the first lines of defense.
However, organizations must set up a safe space for this dialogue to take place whether it’s in person or through surveys or other intermediaries. Understanding your employees’ experiences comes from listening. When employees feel empowered to speak up, they feel appreciated. This appreciation is further shown when leaders make a commitment to not only listen, but to also act on their feedback for the ultimate good of the organization.
4. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) – Ted Colbert, an executive with Boeing, is famously quoted as saying, “The best workforce is a diverse workforce.” I couldn’t agree more. Diversity improves workplace culture by bringing a variety of different voices, viewpoints and skill sets to the table. This not only makes teams more dynamic and innovative, but it also sends the message that your organization is inclusive and values individual experience. When workers feel like they’re valued for who they are as an individual, their satisfaction with their workplace increases and as their satisfaction increases, they’re less likely to experience burnout.
In thriving work cultures with inclusive environments, employees feel valued which gives them reason to believe that they have opportunities within the organization for success. And a word of caution is prudent here, employees will know when you’re truly committed to an inclusive workplace or whether you’re just paying lip service to diversity efforts. Be authentic, empathetic, compassionate and committed.
5. Mental Health Benefits – Almost 20% of adults (nearly 50 million Americans) have experienced some type of mental illness – and that was in 2019 before the pandemic. We know that Covid-19 has increased the incidences of depression, anxiety and OCD. And we know that over the last 20 years, at least 65% of Americans have said that their jobs were the greatest source of stress in their lives.
With so many people affected by mental illness, it is crucial for workers to have access to mental health care. In 2008, the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act was passed which requires group insurance plans to offer coverage for substance use disorders and mental illness. However, even after all of these years, true mental health parity has not been achieved and patients are still being denied the mental health care that they need.
If they have not done so already, business leaders should make sure that the mental health benefits offered to their employees are robust. After all, mental health is just as important as physical health when it comes to the overall well-being of workers. And as we all know, the well-being of your workforce is necessary for a thriving workplace culture.
The most important thing that we can do as business leaders is to start the conversation about mental health and wellness. We need to actively work to decrease the stigma attached to mental illness and we need to create opportunities for employers and employees to safely talk about their own mental health struggles. When we do have people who are brave enough to share, then we must reward them and validate them in order to show others that they shouldn’t fear retribution for being open about their own mental health.
Anything that promotes a conversation about mental health is worthwhile. Design specific activities like a nature walk around your business’s campus where the topic of discussion could be ways each person likes to relax. For the musicians in your office, you could host an open mic night or a jam session. Maybe take an all-company assembly day to bring in a special guest speaker to discuss mental health and wellness strategies. You can also bring in yogis or meditation experts to lead workers in breathing and mindfulness exercises.
Literally anything you can do to explore the topic of mental health will raise awareness and let your workers know that you take their mental health seriously. In the end, by taking steps to acknowledge and prevent mental health issues and provide support if needed, you will have a stronger, more successful company built on the strength and resilience of your employees